Unschooled in human rights

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Echoing his appointees in his propaganda machine, and the trolls and hacks who infest social media as well as some newspapers and broadcast networks, President Rodrigo Duterte rebuked critics of his regime’s human rights record.

He claimed that while these critics have been condemning the cost in Filipino lives and rights of his “war” on drugs and of martial rule in Mindanao, they haven’t been as critical of drug addicts who commit such crimes as the killing of an entire family in Bulacan province two months ago. Neither, he declared during a speech last week, do these critics condemn the death of soldiers in the war against the Maute group in Marawi City.

The Philippine National Police has offered the public conflicting and unverifiable figures on the number of suspected drug users and pushers it has killed during the “war” on drugs. Mr. Duterte was therefore referring to the extrajudicial killing of 7,000 to 12,000 individuals, including minors and children, estimated by human rights defenders. The arrest, torture and murder of Lumad teachers, activists, and worker and farmer leaders by State security forces have also been protested and condemned by the Philippine human rights group Karapatan (Rights).

In berating his critics, Mr. Duterte was assuming that there’s no difference between the killing of a suspected drug pusher or user by a policeman, and a drug addict’s killing someone — although one could point out that drug addicts have not killed 12,000, 7,000, or even the 3,000 people the police sometimes admit to killing since June last year. He also seemed to be implying that the death of a soldier during combat operations is even more deplorable than, say, the killing of a farmer, a teacher, or a political activist by police or military personnel.

Mr. Duterte and company are mistaken. Any lawyer worthy of his profession knows that any killing is deplorable. But a policeman’s presuming guilt and killing someone unarmed and in the process of surrendering is an atrocity in violation of the State responsibility of assuring the safety and right to life, as well as the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, of everyone in its jurisdiction. And the undeniable surge in murders and other crimes is the responsibility of the government, which is supposed to assure citizen safety and security.

While the death of a soldier in combat is worthy of sympathy, the killing of an unarmed individual by a soldier or policeman violates the same principle of State responsibility to protect the lives and assure the safety of its citizens. The first is among the casualties inevitable in a war; the second is simply a murder. But while a crime by a private individual is an offense against Philippine society, the killings by State actors on the scale we’re seeing today are crimes against humanity for which they’re accountable.

Nevertheless, Mr. Duterte’s statements have been hailed not only by the regime’s online trolls and paid media hacks but also by his unrepentant supporters who probably still believe not only in his promise to put an end to the country’s many problems but also in his wisdom. His “very good” rating on human rights in the latest Social Weather Stations survey is either due to that stubborn faith, or, what’s more probable, to ignorance of what human rights are and their significance to their own existence and the lives of everyone.

Mr. Duterte won’t let us forget that he was elected by 16 million voters. That is as disturbing as it is true. During the 2016 campaign for the presidency he vowed to kill as many as 100,000, and, implicitly, to ignore their rights as human beings. His winning the presidency suggests not only that this threat was acceptable to over ten percent of the population. It also starkly demonstrates how badly and sadly misinformed about the nature and value of human rights many Filipinos as well as their government officials are. Human rights education — what human rights are and why they’ve become universal standards for civilized governments to observe — is urgently needed.

The global allegiance to human rights observance has fundamentally been driven by universal recognition of the need to prevent a recurrence of the human cost of Nazi and fascist crimes — 50 million dead including children; families separated; millions more injured and forever traumatized; much of the world in ruins.

Sixty-nine years ago, on December 10, 1948, three years after the fall of the murderous regimes of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and militarist Japan, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations through Resolution 217A, with 48 of its then 58 member countries voting in favor.

The draft Declaration was the result of two years’ work by a Committee constituted by the UN Commission on Human Rights, and was submitted to the General Assembly for approval.

No country opposed it, although there were eight abstentions. (Honduras and Yemen failed to vote.) Six of the abstentions, by the then Soviet Union, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, were due to those countries’ conviction — they had suffered the most during World War II, the cost to the Soviet Union alone being 20 million dead — that the Declaration did not go far enough; they wanted it to condemn fascism and Nazism.

The other two abstainers were South Africa and Saudi Arabia, the former because its apartheid system was in violation of several provisions of the Declaration, and the latter because of its reservations over a provision that recognized the right to change one’s religion.

The Declaration recognizes human rights as inalienable — no one can be denied them — and as inherent in every human being. The signatory governments committed themselves to the observance of the thirty human rights named and described in the Declaration, which include the right to life, liberty and security; the right against arbitrary arrest, detention, exile, slavery and torture; the right to equality and equal protection before the law; the right to a fair trial; the presumption of innocence; freedom of thought, opinion, expression and assembly; participation in governance, and the right to education.

These provisions have since been enlarged upon by numerous other international agreements, treaties and protocols. Legal experts and scholars — of which there is an obvious deficiency in the Duterte regime — say that the Declaration and those agreements constitute legally binding protocols for the signatory countries.

That includes the Philippines, which was among the newly-independent countries that voted in favor of the Declaration. The Philippine government presumably understood the need for the Declaration as a result of the abuses the Filipino people had suffered at the hands of the invading Japanese during WWII. But of equal significance since then is the country’s experience under the Marcos terror regime, during which human rights violations deprived the country of the knowledge, skills, vision and patriotism of the thousands of young men and women it murdered. The imperative of preventing the return of that foul period explains why the 1987 Constitution mandates the creation of a Commission on Human Rights.

Apparently, however, the lessons from these dark episodes in Philippine history have escaped many Filipinos, which unbeknownst to them exposes them and their children to the perils of the return of an authoritarian regime that’s likely to be worse than Ferdinand Marcos, Sr.’s.

Human rights education and mass resistance could prevent such a fascist resurgence. But expect a regime unschooled in the meaning, scope and value of human rights, which denies even the humanity of those it recklessly tags as criminals, and makes a virtue out of the same hatred of dissenters and critics that characterize all fascist tyrannies, to demonize and attempt to suppress any person or group that dares assume that urgent human responsibility.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from the UN.

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